The Aftermath of War in Kosovo

Despite High Unemployment and a Scarred Past, a Visit Reveals the Region’s Hope and Endurance

central Vushtrri

A shopping street in central Vushtrri during early afternoon | Anna Claessen

”Kosovo? Wasn´t there war there?” I asked my boyfriend when he first told me where he came from. Yes, there had been war in Kosovo, ending with NATO bombings in 1999. And its status is still not resolved, which I must admit, made me a little hesitant to go there. But we’d been together three, and I felt it was finally time to go and meet his family.

I arrived in Pristina International Airport at 17:45, with less than twenty steps from airplane to terminal, we were still required to wait ten minutes for a bus to drive us there. In passport control, I was asked if I was visiting or working – not a surprise really, since my native Iceland had managed the airport for a year, from 2003 to 2004, and there were some Icelanders still working there. In fact, the biggest flag outside the airport was an Icelandic one.

After finding our bags we headed outside. Around 50 people were waiting to meet their family, friends and colleagues. Many in Kosovo, in fact, have family abroad: for some families, it’s a financial necessity. According to Dr. Mario Holzner at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW) around 467.1 million Euros were sent to Kosovo from migrants last year. For others it’s a choice of lifestyle. Either way, they are greeted warmly when they return, as I saw when my boyfriend’s six-year-old sister jumped into his arms.

His parents greeted me with a handshake and his sister with three kisses. Off in their car (a vintage red Peugeot) the family chatted away in Albanian, while I smiled and glanced out the window, watching the passing landscape of village houses and harvested fields; it was as if we were in the country. The weather was cold and windy and I felt a chill.  This place had so much history.

Kosovo is a region in southern Serbia with two million inhabitants, 90% of whom are Kosovo-Albanians. Kosovo is recognized by the international community but is non-existent to the Serbian government so Kosovo has been governed since 1999 by UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo).

Formerly an agricultural region, the country is now struggling to develop but lacks investment capital that was scared off by the war. So it struggles with a soaring unemployment rate. While reliable data are difficult to obtain, the International Labor Organization (ILO)  reports that about  65 % of Kosovo’s working age population are economically inactive or unemployed. And their hometown of Vushtrri was no exception.

Vushtrri is located on the main road that connects the capital of Pristina with Mitrovica. Torn down houses, construction, several graveyards and people walking on the streets…. the evidence of war was all around.

The beginning of the Kosovo war unofficially dates back to March 1989, when Serbian state authorities abolished the Constitution of 1974, which granted Kosovo its autonomy, which led to an uprising, organized by the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA).

After two failed attempts to win back its independence in 1990 and ´92, and following the failure of the Rambouillet conference, which would have given Kosovo equal status as a republic and NATO forces access rights to all of Yugoslavia, NATO bombed Yugoslav targets for 72 days. An estimated 10,000 Albanians and 3,000 Serbs were killed during the conflict and 3,000 people are still missing

Driving through a narrow, muddy valley, he opened a garage door, and inside was the house, with four rooms, two bedrooms, laundry room and dining area, housing his entire family, one brother, two sisters, parents and grandmother. It felt like traveling through time to another era, with everybody living together. It also seemed to bring them closer together, and I had a lovely evening getting to know everyone.

The next day was Bairam, a celebration of the spiritual and physical cleansing that follows Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. It lasts three days where everyone eats and  drinks with their family and friends. People go to the mosque or watched the festivities on TV from home. Then they hugged each other and the children received presents or money, from parents and visitors. It all reminded me a little of Christmas.

A couple of times during my time there, the electricity would suddenly go off. Since the end of the war, the power supply has been problematic, especially after the generator burn out in 2005. The damage left cut backs for two and occasionally three hours per day. No problem for this family. They just lit candles and oil lamps, which to me felt cozy and romantic, like a weekend in a cabin. Of course I was only visiting and would soon be going back to Vienna. It’s different when you have no choice.

The next day was a tourist day.

Our first stop was Pristina, the a capital city of 600,000 inhabitants. It is quite a different scene from Vushtrri, with towering new office buildings revealing their American influences. There were American schools, a Mango department store and even a street called Bill Clinton Avenue. Bill Clinton Avenue was a gesture of gratitude for his support for Kosovo´s independence. The houses of the international residents were more modern and extravagant next to those of the locals, which were mostly made of bricks.

Next stop was Mitrovica, which is divided into North and South by a river. The north is populated by Serbs and the south by Albanians, with soldiers and police officers guarding the area to avoid clashes. Despite that, my boyfriend still didn’t feel comfortable ordering anything in a coffeehouse he didn’t know, as Serbs had been known to use poison the drinks of the best Albanian students in his school.

Still, there were great things about being a tourist in Kosovo: for one thing,  everything was so inexpensive.  In the countryside, I paid 22 euros for four people at a quality restaurant, for two pizzas and steaks and seven beverages. Pristina was though more expensive.

However, what I liked most about Kosovo were the people, who seemed unfailingly warm and friendly. Despite not knowing a thing I said, they still went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, always offering me something, something to drink or eat, even gifts. If I pointed at something and said it was beautiful, they gave it to me – which gets complicated and makes one very cautious.

In this weekend trip, I received a carpet and a table decoration from his parents, makeup kit and a ring from his sister, a “scrunchy” from his little sister, chocolate from his aunt and a bracelet from a friend of his mother. I felt very accepted there.

The weekend was quickly over. I was almost out the door when the passport control man asked me how I liked Kosovo. I told him I really liked it and pointed out that the people were really friendly. He then replied:  ”In Kosovo people are poor, but it will all be better when they receive their status.” There it was: Kosovars have hope.

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